For many years now, tourism has been the province’s breadwinner. Tourism has delivered a larger, direct contribution to B.C.’s gross domestic product than forestry and logging, than agriculture and fishing, and even than oil and gas.
At the same time, the budgets for BC Parks have historically been meagre. At the beginning of this century, an already strained budget was cut by 30 per cent. The result? A serious reduction in staff and a serious lack of funds for maintenance and new projects.
As recently as 2009, Parks’ budget stood at $30 million. Big number? A decrease of 29 per cent from its previous high budget of $42 million. And that was spread over 650 provincial parks spanning 13.5 million hectares. By comparison, Metro Vancouver’s parks budget was $21 million... for 21 regional parks totting up to 3,700 hectares.
The government, having read the tea leaves, came out in 2021 with a splashy plan to invest $83 million into provincial parks. Over a three-year period. While $83 million sounds great, $27.7 million per year sounds, well, less great. Especially against the $100 million per year a group of 19 tourism and recreation organizations had asked for.
That was then. Now? The budget announced by the Finance Minister this February tossed out another big number. How big? $70 million for operations and $31 million for capital improvements. Again, over three years. Close, but still meagre.
As far back as 2001, a study commissioned by BC Parks, titled Economic Benefits of BC Parks, found that for every one dollar spent on parks by the B.C. government, $10 flowed into the economy. Any investor capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time would happily plough money into something with that kind of return.
But during the same 22 years, on numerous forays into the same park, Bowron Lake Provincial Park, I’ve witnessed the degradation of the portages to the point where some of them are simply impassable for anyone without considerable stamina.
On top of that, tourism providers who operate within Parks’ land have watched their royalty cheques go not to Parks, but to the province’s general revenue fund, the black hole of finance. Rather than seeing their tithe go into maintaining and improving parks, or even keeping up with the tsunami of people recreating within BC Parks, their funds disappear like a fart on the breeze.
Faced with repeated calls to provide more funding, the BC Parks Foundation, a registered charity, was formed in 2017 and became operational a year later. Depending on your level of cynicism, the Foundation is either a great thing, a lesson in downloading expenses by the provincial government, or a voluntary user-pay system. Whatever your feelings, the Foundation plays a role, fills a need, and brings much-needed funding to making provincial parks better.
While we might rankle at the need to raise charitable dollars to keep the province’s parks healthy, this model is well established in B.C. We raise private donations through, for example, the Whistler Health Care Foundation, to purchase medical equipment the province, through Vancouver Coastal Health, should be providing. If you want decent health-care, if you want decent parks, charity is a well-established highway to get there.
But B.C. is a big place, and while we happily travel to explore it, our excursions more often than not take place in our own backyard—the Sea to Sky corridor. So, suppose there was some way to earmark those charitable dollars for efforts within it?
Enter the inimitable Kirby Brown.
Having cut a wide swath through Whistler in his years here, Kirby’s been the general manager of the Sea to Sky Gondola since it opened, closed, opened, closed, and opened again. Kirby’s a glass-half-full guy, and a guy who’ll fill your glass the rest of the way given half a chance.
In June 2019, Kirby decided to do something about it. With the help of Gondola employee Christy Allan, buy-in from the Gondola’s owners, Trevor Dunn, Michael Hutchison and David Greenfield, and CEO of the Foundation, Andrew Day, Kirby tacked a buck onto the price of a lift ticket and set up the Sea to Sky Legacy Fund within the Foundation.
“From inception, this fund idea was created out of frustration after watching our regional parks and rec sites get increasingly overwhelmed with visitation pressure on the one hand and budget cuts on the other,” he said.
“Fast forward to this spring and through the fund, we’ve been able to add a full-time park ranger to the region, the first new ranger position created in decades. We’d like to see that one ranger turn into many, many more and add back a layer of management, stewardship. I think we can really change course a lot of issues that arise from overuse and abuse, including garbage, fires, and degradation, by turning back the clock on the parks management model.”
No one’s complained or even noticed the buck-a-ticket increase, and if the record numbers of visitors is any indication, none care. But this grassroots effort is already paying off, and already attracting other organizations to become supporters.
Whistleratics have evidenced two very outstanding behaviours in the past—they are passionate users of outdoor spaces, and they’ve rallied again and again for good causes. And while the Sea to Sky Legacy Fund welcomes any and all donations, that’s not exactly what Kirby has in mind.
“We believe it’s time for visitors and businesses to contribute even more directly to protecting and caring for B.C.’s sacred public spaces,” he writes, adding the fund “provides a simple and effective mechanism for businesses to make a direct and meaningful difference to the places we all use and love.”
Make the experience better? It’s as easy as an unnoticeable amount added to each ticket. Or a donation option offered to customers who may be happy to give a bit back for the enjoyment they receive.
The fund is administered by the BC Parks Foundation with guidance from contributing businesses. The money gets reinvested in the corridor for everyone’s enjoyment. What could be better?
Well, getting more corporate sponsors would definitely be better. Hey, there, Vail Resorts. Don’t mean to single out the big dog, and there are a whole roster of businesses in Whistler alone whose names it would be nice to see as contributors to the fund.